Start Me Up, Page 2J. Kenner
"Nonsense," Hannah said, looking over the car's roof at Shelby. The copper highlights in her mass of blond curls gleamed in the late afternoon sun, shining as bright as Hannah's mischievous grin. "Bachelorette parties require the appropriate gift. And trust me, when it comes to honeymoon supplies, no place in Austin is better than Forbidden Fruit."
Shelby glanced at the pink storefront in the artsy North Loop shopping area. The name was spelled out in huge letters above a wall of windows that made Shelby wince, because anyone walking by would see her in there. And Shelby was really not the kind of girl to go into a sex toy store. Yes, she owned a vibrator, but she'd bought it the proper way--in secret from a mail order store that promised discreet packaging. And even then she'd waited two days to open the box, and had locked herself in her bedroom before using her manicure scissors to slice through the packing tape.
All that, despite the fact that she lived alone and no one else had been in her house. But about some things, you really couldn't be too careful.
Hannah only laughed and shook her head as she came around the car to take Shel by the elbow. "You can do it. Come on. Consider it a life milestone. One wacky thing to check off your bucket list."
"Wacky is right," Shelby muttered, as she tottered alongside her friend wishing she was still wearing her comfortable pumps and her familiar linen blend suit with the skirt that hit just below the knee. But no. She was about to walk into a sex shop wearing Fuck Me pumps and a skin-tight little black dress she'd borrowed from Hannah with a slit that extended from the knee-length hem all the way up to mid-thigh. They were the same height, but whereas Hannah was trim and athletic, Shelby had definite curves, which the lycra-cotton blend was clinging to like plastic wrap.
She was also wearing thong panties in defense against panty lines, and her legs were bare. Which, considering that Shelby was used to pantyhose, was a rather disconcerting experience, as she was feeling a definite breeze in places where there usually wasn't one.
Seriously, why had she listened to Hannah? Because now Shelby was about to walk into a sex toy shop dressed like she was there to buy professional supplies.
"You owe me big time," she said to Hannah.
"Fair enough. Now come on. It's already almost seven and we have to get back downtown to meet the girls at eight."
The bachelorette party was for Celia James, one of the secretaries at Brandywine Finance & Consulting, the firm where Shelby worked as a financial advisor and where Hannah served as in-house counsel. It was a low-key, mid-week affair, as Celia's college friends had taken her to Cancun for her official party. When Shelby had pointed that out to Hannah in support of the argument that work clothes--or even jeans and a blazer--would be perfectly fine, Hannah had pulled out her best friend veto power.
"Fine," Shelby said now. "But I'm still not staying late. I have to work tomorrow."
"We all have to work tomorrow," Hannah retorted, then held the glass door open. "Come on."
With a sigh, Shelby did as she was told, her eyes widening as she stood in the center of the cavernous room scoping out the displays. Walls of vibrators and dildoes. Cases of lube. Sections with handcuffs and blindfolds and other restraints. And leather. Lots of leather.
A woman with a friendly smile greeted them, asking if they needed help, but Hannah assured her they were fine. Shelby said nothing, although she may have made a small squeaking noise. It wasn't that she was a prude. She'd had sex--and not only in the missionary position, either.
But all of this was so very public.
At first, she stuck close to Hannah. But when her friend called the clerk over to explain the pros and cons of various vibrators, Shelby drifted away, finding herself near a glass case with leather handcuffs, a fur blindfold, and a roll of something that looked like electrical tape.
She bit her lower lip as her gaze skimmed over the display. A pleasant tingle started below her belly button, and she tried to imagine being naked in bed, the mask over her eyes, and her arms taped to the headboard.
She could almost feel the pressure of a man's hands on her, rough and strong as he roamed down her skin to cup her at the waist, and then the heat of his mouth on her breasts as he--
"Can I answer any questions?"
Shelby actually yelped, then teetered on her heels as she tried to steady herself. "I--um--no. I'm just waiting for my friend."
"Feel free to look around," the saleswoman said. "And if you need any help, just let me know."
"Oh. Sure. Absolutely."
The woman started to turn away, and Shelby surprised herself by saying, "Actually, what is this?" She was pointing to the roll of electrical tape. "Wouldn't that, like, hurt?"
The woman shook her head, her expression kind and professional. "It only sticks to itself. So it won't pull on your skin or leave a residue," she said. "Much more portable than handcuffs, and infinitely more versatile."
"Ohhhh!" Hannah said, coming up behind them. "Toss a roll in for me, would you?" She winked at Shelby. "We're going to make sure Celia has the best honeymoon ever. And then I think that'll do it," she told the saleswoman.
"Wonderful. Just meet me at the register when you're ready."
Hannah nodded, then nudged Shelby. "Looking for a little something for yourself? I mean, there's always Alan, right..."
Shelby frowned, thinking about Alan Lowe, the assistant professor she'd been dating ever since her mother had introduced them three months ago, assuring her that the two of them would be perfect together. And they were. Alan was sweet and polite and thoughtful. And the two times they'd slept together had been perfectly fine. But--
She shook her head. "I don't think bondage tape is Alan's thing."
Hannah's lips thinned as she very obviously held back a laugh.
"I just find your word choice interesting. Not Alan's thing? Does that mean it is yours?"
Shelby rolled her eyes. "Oh, please," she said. "Go pay, and let's get out of here."
Hannah glanced at her watch. "Shit. We really do need to get going." As she hurried toward the checkout, Shelby glanced one more time at the cuffs and tape.
Definitely not Alan's thing, but even though they'd never actually talked about being exclusive, Alan was the only guy on Shelby's current radar.
So who was the man in her delicious little fantasy? For that matter, why was she fantasizing at all? She was perfectly happy with Alan and their casual non-relationship. Maybe they were moving more slowly than was common these days, but there was nothing wrong with that.
"Getting back to Alan," Hannah began, once they were in her car and heading toward downtown. "Obviously he's not tying you up and fucking you like crazy--"
"--so what is going on with you two?"
"Oh, my God," Shelby said, a little disconcerted that Hannah's question tracked Shelby's own. Albeit in a completely mortifying way. "You're impossible."
"I know. I really am. It's just so easy to tease you. But the question's legit. You and I haven't had the chance to catch up in weeks. I do want to know what's going on with you."
Shelby lifted a shoulder, a little mollified. "Alan's great. He's the perfect guy. Smart. Attractive. And he's on tenure track at the university." Alan was an assistant professor at UT in the same department where her mother held a tenured position as a professor in the Department of Statistics and Data Sciences. And her father, who was a high-level statistician with the State of Texas, thought that Alan pretty much hung the moon.
"Mom says he'll probably be the dean of the department someday," Shelby added.
"Oh, come on, Shel. Forget bondage tape--but does he get your motor revving?"
Shelby smirked. "My motor is doing just fine. And a good relationship is about more than sex, anyway." Alan was kind, smart, well-read, and they enjoyed so many of the same things, like concerts and classic movies and quiet nights at home.
All in all, Shelby and Alan m
ade sense. The same way that a balanced equation made sense. And just like in math, Shelby could see the way the formula played out. Two more months of casually seeing each other, and then they'd talk about being exclusive. Six months after that, they'd get engaged. They'd get married in the summer, and by next winter, she'd be Mrs. Alan Lowe.
Hannah shot a quick glance at Shelby before checking her mirror and changing lanes. "I just--never mind."
"Nothing. I swear. It's just that--well, I don't want to see you settle."
"Dating Alan is not settling. He's the kind of guy who'll make the perfect husband and father."
"You're getting married?"
"Well, not now, obviously. But I think Alan definitely checks all the boxes."
Hannah's brows lifted. "Does he check your box?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I only want you to have fun."
Shelby sat up straighter. "I have fun. Just because I don't sleep around doesn't mean I don't have fun."
"Oh, hell," Hannah said. "You know I didn't mean it like that."
Shelby slumped back in the seat. "I know," she said. And she did. Her whole life she'd been juggling well-meaning friends who saw her as shy or sedate or boring or too much of a brainiac to have any social skills. And maybe that was true. But that didn't mean she wasn't happy, because she was. Happy and ambitious and successful.
More than that, Shel knew exactly what she wanted in both her career and her life.
With her career, Shel had been obsessed with numbers since the first time her dad sat her down and taught her the multiplication tables. The way they worked, what they represented, the streamlined beauty of the truth they represented.
Accounting suited her perfectly. Not only was she helping people and companies, but she got to play in that finite world that always made sense. Because at the end of the day--at least in the world of accounting--two plus two always equaled four.
As for her life, she wanted a home like the one she'd grown up in, with respect and security and a partner who was both ambitious and loyal to his family. Someone who took life and relationships seriously.
Shelby knew only too well what could go wrong if you didn't walk that line. Her mother's brother--her uncle--had never had any real ambition, and he'd ended up divorced and in rehab after his band had broken up.
And her cousin Violet on her father's side had gone off and married a stand-up comedian who convinced her he was going to be the next big sitcom star. Now they fought all the time and lived in a tiny apartment in Los Angeles with three kids. And her husband managed a local fast-food restaurant.
Not Shelby. She wasn't going to be stupid about her life--and she wasn't succumbing to what felt like a family curse. Her parents had managed to find the right path, and she intended to walk right in their footsteps.
Maybe it didn't sound sexy, but to Shelby, the kind of financial security, ordered life, and familial affection that her parents shared was what defined a life well-lived. The kind of life she wanted for herself.
The kind of life that a man like Alan would fit into perfectly.
So why was she was fantasizing about bondage tape? Especially when the anonymous man in her fantasy was absolutely, totally, one hundred percent not Alan Lowe?
"Oh, my God! You guys are terrible!" Celia pulled the purple vibrator and black bondage tape out of the pink gift bag with Bride-To-Be emblazoned on the side, then held them up for everyone to see. And not only the bachelorette party guests. No, to Shelby's utter mortification, pretty much every customer, server, and bartender in The Fix on Sixth also turned to look.
"Brian is going to absolutely love our wedding night. Thank you both," Celia added, aiming her crooked, drunken grin at both Hannah and Shelby.
"Um, Celia?" Shel tugged on her co-worker's sleeve. "The whole bar is staring."
But Celia just laughed, yanked her arm free, and brandished the purple contraption even more wildly over her head.
"Come on, Shel," Celia said, her words slurring together. "I'm getting married. Nobody cares about this." She poked Shel in the chest with the vibrator's silicon tip. "They're all just happy for me. Even them," she added, using the sex toy as a pointer while her arm swept the room to encompass all the tables in the main area of The Fix.
A few of the customers laughed outright, but most had the grace to turn away from the drunk and crazy bride-to-be. And Shelby--already too far down the rabbit hole to climb out--decided that it was time to either leave the party or surrender all pretense of decorum.
She weighed both options for only a second, then made her selection. "Pass me the pitcher, will you?" she asked Hannah, to general whoops of approval. "I so need another drink."
The group of six women had set up the bachelorette party at the large table by the window at the front of The Fix, right beside the colorful wall mural depicting Austin. They had a fabulous view of the pedestrians on Sixth Street, many of whom slowed to gape at the pretty bride in her gaudy, bejeweled BRIDE tiara. Not to mention the assorted selection of anatomically correct candies and cakes that dotted the table, courtesy of Naughty Cakes, a local bakery.
By the time Celia finished opening all the presents and the girls had devoured a platter of penis cupcakes, they'd also polished off three entire pitchers of Pinot Punch--a wine, Schnapps, and frozen peach concoction that the cute bartender had promised they'd love. He hadn't lied, and as the liquid in the pitchers decreased, the noise level rose in an almost mathematically predictable ratio.
Now, the din in little corner of The Fix had increased to DEFCON Rowdy.
"I'm totally serious," Shelby assured her rapt audience of tipsy women. She adjusted her glasses, then took another sip from her fourth--no, fifth--glass of punch, then continued the story she'd been telling about a local country and western singer who'd hit her up for advice not long after she'd passed her CPA exam. "He told me they were a business expense. Said they relaxed him so that he could hear the music in his head."
"Butt plugs?" Celia asked, her eyes wide. "Vibrating butt plugs were his muse?"
"You want to say that a little louder?" Leslie from payroll said. "I don't think that table on the far side of the room heard you."
"What did you do?" Celia asked.
"Nothing. I told you, he was just chatting me up at a party. But I can't listen to his music anymore. At least not without wondering how he wrote it."
Hannah laughed so loud she practically snorted. "I can't believe you haven't told me this story before."
Shelby shrugged. Honestly, she couldn't believe she was telling it now. But her mind and her tongue seemed pleasantly loose. She knew it was the punch--most of the time she never drank anything stronger than Perrier with lime when she went out. Not only did she hate having to rely on someone else to get her home--whether a friend or a taxi or a ride share app--she just plain didn't like feeling out of control.
But today was a special occasion, and it felt nice to be laughing and drinking and having a good time with her friends.
"I'm so happy for you," she said, leaning over to hug Celia.
"Thanks! And I know--"
Celia cut herself off, her eyes going wide as she gripped Shelby's wrist. "Don't look toward the bar," she whispered. "But that guy is watching you again."
"Really?" She was facing the window, and now she twisted in her seat to get a view of the long oak bar that ran parallel to the interior wall of the bar's main room.
Celia jerked her back. "I said don't look!"
"Oh, right," Shelby said, but she felt her cheeks go pink, because she'd gotten enough of a glimpse to know that the cute guy with the short dark hair and pale gray eyes really was looking her direction. "He's not looking at me," Shel protested.
"Please, girlfriend," Hannah said, scooting closer, "he totally is. And why wouldn't he? You look hot. The outfit is amazing. And so is your hair and make-up, if I do say so myself."
d in one of the many downtown condos that had popped up in Austin over the last decade. Instead of going straight for The Fix after Forbidden Fruit, she'd insisted on a quick pit stop, during which Hannah had changed out of her short skirt and into skintight jeans and a backless silk halter. After that, she'd touched up Shelby's make-up and then worked a little magic on her hair. "We may be ten minutes late," she'd said. "But we'll make one hell of an entrance."
Before, Shel had pinned her hair up so that a few tendrils framed her face. She'd been pleased with the effect and had thought that Hannah had approved.
"It's great," Hannah had assured her as she'd yanked out the pins and fired up her curling iron. "But this will be better."
And it was. She'd pulled down Shelby's shoulder-length dark hair, then proceeded to curl each and every strand with a large diameter curling iron. The result being a mass of curls that framed her face and bounced when she walked.
"Even your glasses look great," Hannah had added, tilting her head as she examined Shelby critically. "The aqua color's really fun, and it brings out the blue in your eyes." Shelby's eyes were hazel, and tended to pick up the color of whatever she was wearing.
Now, in The Fix, Hannah looked her over once again with approval. "I think it's the glasses coupled with that killer outfit that caught his eye. You're welcome, by the way. It gives you a studious minx look."
"You realize you sound like you're casting a porn video, right?" Shelby protested, making all the girls at the table laugh.
"Whatever," Celia said. "But Hannah's right. The point is that Mr. Hottie likes it. I mean, did you see the way he was watching you earlier? Like he could totally eat you up."
Shelby's face flushed warm. "That's because you tossed me that stupid vibrator. He looked over at us right as I caught the thing." She'd been holding the purple device in both hands, and she'd glanced up to see Mr. Hottie's eyes locked on her. Pale gray and deep set, with the kind of long lashes some women paid a lot of money for. Bedroom eyes, Shelby thought, then quickly banished the ridiculous thought.
She remembered the way the corner of his mouth had quirked up as he'd watched her--not to mention the corresponding tug she'd felt deep inside. She'd looked away, then, suddenly shaky and dry-mouthed and unsure.